Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

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Mark Beuving
Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.

10 COMMENTS

    • Hey Dean! Thanks for taking a minute to comment. Yes, I agree that “Meet Me in the Woods” is about an encounter with darkness. I’m glad you brought that up.

      First of all, I’d say that there’s still a lot to take in and reflect on, even if we disagree with what an album is advocating. (I think you’re agree when you say you dig the album.) It’s also interesting that with Schneider’s unique approach to song writing, the album “speaks” from a handful of different characters, so we’d need to figure out which character is speaking and why in order to determine whether the “darkness in the woods” is being advocated or warned against in the bigger picture.

      But it’s also interesting to see how “Meet Me in the Woods” and the following songs flow together. In “Meet Me in the Woods,” the character is clearly encountering darkness, and ends up gone longer than he imagined, witnessing strange things (a nod to the “Strange Trails” that the album walks through probably), and being changed forever. The next song, though, is “Yawning Grave,” and it clearly presents consequences for having tampered with darkness. So even just with these two songs, I’d say Schneider isn’t giving a commendation in “Meet Me in the Woods,” instead he’s now warning us about it.

      Then the next song is “Frozen Pines,” which lyrically carries allusions to “Meet Me in the Woods” and seems to be all about walking through the forest, coming out on the other side of the forest, and calling others to do the same. So even though “Yawning Grave” promises that the characters “cannot be saved,” it seems that “Frozen Pines” exposes that lie and calls people through to “another life beyond the line.”

      It’s art, which means we probably won’t settle on a thoroughly unambiguous answer to what it means precisely, but once again, that’s what I love about the album. There is much here to think about, and the interconnectedness of it provides layers of meaning that can’t be quickly digested.

      So glad you pointed that out.

    • Andy, thanks for pointing these out, both the specific line from “World Ender” and the general darkness. It seems to me that this is why he called the album Strange Trails. As Schneider said in the NPR interview, the album sort of follows a greaser gang called “The World Enders,” and you can see different elements of experimentation, conflict, loss, longing for revenge, regret, etc. from song to song.

      I’d just reiterate the point of the original post here: I don’t think that Christians (or anyone) should simply imitate the Strange Trials album, but I do think we have a lot to learn from the depth of the album. Schneider’s creation of an album that speaks from the viewpoint of several characters will certainly leave us with some ambiguity about who is the hero of the album specifically (or if there is indeed one), what he’s hoping to communicate with the album, etc. Is Schnieder presenting darkness so that we will embrace it? I don’t think so. See my reply to Dean below on that. [If you’re interested, you can also check out this old post on a redemptive use of darkness/violence: http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2012/04/when-violence-is-a-good-thing-or-what-do-flannery-oconnor-the-hunger-games-have-in-common/#.VTfc1a1VhBc%5D.

      So I’d say that regardless of the specific content or message of the album, we can learn a lot from the album’s depth and strive for depth in our own creations as well. And I’d also suggest that the presence of darkness does not make the album inherently harmful. It’s more about how he’s using that depiction of darkness, and I find much in this particular album that points me in a good direction. Others may not, and that’s entirely fine, too.

  1. I appreciate this article and the intent behind it. We, as Christians, were called to be excellent at what we do, as Colossians tells us to do whatever we do for the Lord. To preface my comment, please understand I am a HUGE fan of the music of Lord Huron. The musics and lyrics of Lonesome Dreams moved me in a great deal of ways. Strange Trails was just that, it was strange at first, but I followed along and sure enough came to love it as well. I went to see LH for the first time tonight. I can’t tell you how excited I was. The song “Brother” was my first connection to this band after my brother randomly chose it to create a video from footage of a road trip we three brothers took a few years ago. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked. However, while I downplayed a lot of the lyrics on the new album while singing along in my car to and from work, justifying them as someone seeking discovery/exploration/anything else you want to say…it finally clicked when they unveiled their stage logo with a skull. I don’t know why. Maybe there’s nothing bad about an image of skull hanging over you all night long. But it made me listen to the songs with more awareness. My guard was up for some reason. As you note and as I concede, these are fictional characters with different backgrounds. He’s made that well known. But some of the lyrics just aren’t good man. I think we can allow the enemy to lull us to sleep sometimes. I came across an article (linked below), in which comments like “the idea is that your mind will populate the dark places in between,” and “there’s a lot left unsaid; a lot of unrendered darkness waiting to be filled with other people’s interpretations and projections.” Is it just me, or does that make you uneasy? Doesn’t Truth tell us to run from darkness. Don’t mess with it? Doesn’t it say that enemy is crafty, powerful, smart? Doesn’t Ephesians say the whole point of putting on the armor of God is to stand against the enemy’s schemes? To that end, should we engage with television programs/movies that promote other forms of sin/darkness? How often do we take this daily battle seriously? “It’s just music.” “It’s just a sitcom.” “The storylines are really good.” Truth says to fill our minds with everything that is pure and holy. We do a good job either avoiding it in a face to face conversation and might even speak up if someone says something that is not pure and holy (probably not though), but how much do we (including myself) allow ourselves to engage in these matters in the privacy of our rooms with a Netflix account? Game of Thrones? Modern Family? I really don’t know from a theological perspective if it’s right or wrong to listen to Lord Huron anymore, but if there’s a chance it’s leading me down a “strange trail”, I feel led to avoid it all together. At what point to we lay down justifications of “being in the world but not of the world” and prepare ourselves to be persecuted as Jesus so clearly stated would happen? At what point do we turn and run from anything that might be used to rob of us of joy, peace, and our purpose and relationship with Jesus? (i.e. turning off our favorite tv show/walking out of a movie/ or speaking up at something that mocks our Savior or takes his Name in vain (Matt 6:9, Exodus 20:7 / or when your coworker or friend asks you why didn’t you watch last night’s episode or why you decided to stop following a certain band…probably better examples but hopefully there is some type of application to this rambling). I state all this with a degree of conviction as that is what I am truly feeling (been stuck on the word “holy” for a while and it’s meaning “set apart”, 1 Peter 2:9, we are a “set apart nation.”). However, I am posting to seek insight, based in Truth. This is goes beyond your intent for this article, but I appreciate any input you have. Thanks!

    link to article referenced: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/exclusive-read-the-first-four-pages-of-lord-hurons-comic-book-strange-trails

    • Hi Jon.

      Thanks for your thoughtful response. In the same way you began our comment, I want to begin by affirming that I, too, appreciate your comment and the intent behind it. I couldn’t agree more that Christians very often justify whatever nonsense they want to engage in under the banner of “being relevant” or “free in Christ.” That’s just not the way it works. There is much that is unhealthy and harmful out there, and we do need to exercise great caution.

      But since you asked, I do think the issue is more complex than that. To be clear: when you’re faced with a choice between good and evil, choose good! Never compromise. But I think a greater level of depth and discernment is called for in following Paul’s command to think on those things that are pure, lovely, true, etc. (Phil. 4:8). For example, if we take this command in a simplistic way (only allow your mind to process those things that are good, true, and holy), then much of the Bible is off limits. We can’t read those sections about rape, murder, lies, betrayal, adultery, etc. There’s tons of bad stuff in the Bible. But we know that Paul’s command is not telling us that we can’t think about parts of the Bible.

      Here’s where I see the difference. When we read about David committing adultery, we know his action is bad. So we’re not praising adultery, we’re actually condemning it and learning from the description of the sinful action and its destructive consequences. So the act of thinking on what is true, good, holy, etc. is more holistic: it’s not prescribing a sanitized subject matter as our sole intake, it’s calling us to think Christianly about everything.

      Now, there are many films, songs, shows, etc. that I choose not to expose myself to because I believe they will be harmful to me. But there are other things (like Strange Trails), that contain darkness, but that I still find benefit in listening to. You may not find the same album to be beneficial, and that’s fine. We have a responsibility to call one another to holiness, and not allow each other to compromise, but diversity in the body of Christ and the principle of Christian freedom means that we will sometimes disagree over which specific things are harmful. (I saw this humility come through in your comment, and I appreciate it.)

      All in all, I’d say that when we come across anything that pulls us down, makes us vulnerable to evil, or involves compromise in some way, we need to step away. So if Lord Huron does that for a person, then by all means, there are many other great albums to listen to! But I also think it’s important for Christians to step beyond running from the mere presence of dark themes or content and to use discernment to ask how that dark content is functioning and how it relates to God’s truth. In some cases, some really dark content can actually preach a powerful message, as it does in the Bible (I’ve written on that here: http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2011/12/can-bad-movies-teach-good-things/). In other cases, some seemingly wholesome content can actually teach some pretty destructive ideas (I’ve written on that here: http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2011/12/water-for-elephants-can-good-movies-teach-bad-things/). If you’re interested, I’ve written a bit about the theology behind this need for discernment here: http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2011/04/truth-suppression-in-the-arts-media/

      And at the risk of being self-promoting, if you want to really dig into this concept a lot more, I’ve written a lot about these types of concepts in Resonate: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0310516471/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0310516471&linkCode=as2&tag=facultypublications-20&linkId=HKHNWJRYEYGGA6WO

      (Also, I like the article you pointed to. I definitely agree that the album features darkness, death, even evil forces, but as I read those quotes you mentioned in context, it sounds to me that when he says “populate the dark places in between,” he’s just talking about the audience mentally filling in the gaps (later in the article he conveys the same concept by saying “fill in the blank spaces”). In other words, the plot development that isn’t specifically stated gets filled in with the listener’s imagination, which is a reality in all fiction. I didn’t get the impression that he was hoping the audience would embrace darkness, just fill in those details he intentionally leaves out.)

  2. This album has become one of my favorites and is much better than Lonesome Dreams.

    I think you did a great job an explaining the resonance behind their music and how their styling can be adopted.

    I would add the following, however:

    In my opinion, ‘Christian’ music falters in that its lyricism tends to be a very literal (and dare i say, simplistic) choir of commonplace, highly over-used prayer phrases joined with sometimes catchy tunes.

    I would argue that good art, regardless of the medium, provides enough room for interpretation by the audience that they can attach their own meaning and significance to it, at least to some extent. Even though Schneider seems to go to great depths to flesh out a story behind his work, there is still ample room for the listener to make his songs their own.

    When I first heard the Strange Trails album, I was going through a rough time in my life and a bad break-up – songs like ‘The Night We Met,’ and ‘Love Like Ghosts’ literally brought me to tears because I felt like the very emotions that were tearing me up inside me had been manifested, as song; they connected with a very specific time and place in my life. A song that can do that is a powerful piece of art, indeed.